Brown hangs on

Jim Moody examines the Labour Party media circus

While he was chancellor, Gordon Brown was happy to take credit for the ‘good times’ that the economy was experiencing from the ‘up’ part of capitalism’s cycle. Now that the economy has gone into a downturn and he is prime minister, Brown seems less keen to take the blame. Brown’s mantra was “It’s the global economy, stupid” during an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr on September 23.

Later that day Brown delivered his much awaited conference speech. He was introduced by his wife, for heaven’s sake! Very American. His main message was that he alone has the experience and expertise to steer Britain through troubled waters. This is no time for novices: ie, the two Davids, Cameron and Miliband. The latter’s allies were said to be furious.

Apart from promising to act in concert with other world leaders when it came to the world economy, it was one platitude from Brown after another: “transparency ... sound banking ... responsibility ... integrity ... global standards”. Nothing urgent, nothing original, nothing decisive. Though it earned applause from the conference faithful, programmatically it was business as usual.

Neither Brown nor the advisers around him seem to have caught up with the fact that the market system has visibly failed and that in the US the Republican administration of George W Bush is desperately trying to put in place a trillion-dollar Keynesian programme to rescue finance capital. A turning point for world capitalism. And as soon as the economic downturn really starts to bite, with massive increases in unemployment, house repossessions, industrial closures and a slump in demand, people will be looking for an alternative. Clearly they are not going to find one in Brown.

Leading leftwinger John McDonnell is quite right. The Brown government has “no apparent strategy to deal with the recession other than to blunder on”. What is more, it is prone to an ever-present threat of destabilisation from another by-election loss, depressing poll figures and backbench panic (The Guardian September 16).

Though for years Brown yearned and manoeuvred to replace Tony Blair, the differences between the two men and their supporters was far more about ambition and clique dynamics than policy and programme. The only change is that now it is the Brownite insiders who are on the defensive against the Blairite outsiders.

Blair and Brown were the two main architects of New Labour, which continued the Thatcherite counterreformation. They kept the Tories’ anti-trade unions laws in place and at the same time gave a free hand to finance capital. Both Blair and Brown saw to it that Labour abandoned its pretended connection with specifically working class aspirations. ‘Socialism’ became a dirty word and the super-rich were courted and celebrated.

Brown turned nasty 20 minutes into his Manchester speech, obviously trying to curry favour with the Daily Mail constituency: “We will be the party of law and order,” he thundered and, in a naked attempt to out-right the right, he said he wants to force everyone who is physically able to work. Shades of the 1930s, when benefits were withdrawn from the ‘work-shy’.

Hypocritically, this dogged defender of market capitalism insisted (to cheers) that, “Nobody should get to take more out of the system than they are prepared to put in.” Strangely, he was not referring to the CEOs, the bank directors, the short-sellers, the commodity traders and the whole system of profit and exploitation. Instead, this statement was his entrée into banging the xenophobic drum once more and announcing another attack on workers coming to Britain in the form of an imminent “migrant charge for public services”.

Although in his speech Brown did not name Iraq or comment on the one million deaths for which he shares culpability, he was eager to associate with the US “dealing with immediate challenges” in Georgia and Iran. So Brown is determined to line up with America in what could be the next war. An aerial blitz on Iran remains very much on the agenda - possibly to save ‘poor little Israel’, possibly to prevent Iran becoming a ‘global threat’ if it insists on pursuing its nuclear programme in spite of UN sanctions.

Brown and his ministers were in overdrive in the week before the Labour conference, talking up how government was ‘getting alongside’ working class people as they face adversity, what with rising prices and loss of jobs. They claim to know how it feels. They say they are showing empathy. That is what the passage in Brown’s speech about the NHS and his eye operation was all about.

But it hardly washes. The lot of them are highly-paid lickspittles of capital! Brown gets (officially as first lord of the treasury) £127,334 in addition to his MP’s salary of £60,277; and that is without his £87,276 staffing allowance, £20,440 incidental expenses provision and £22,110 additional costs allowance. The London supplement of £2,712 hardly seems worth mentioning on top of that lot. That is a grand total of £320,149 - more than 13 times the median pay for full-time employees in the UK (£23,764, according to the office for national statistics). Cabinet ministers too lead a life completely removed from that of ordinary workers.

Labour Party internal democracy has taken a further nosedive over the Blair-Brown years of New Labour. The annual conference is but a shadow of its former self, deciding nothing and resembling more and more the vacuous conventions beloved of mainstream Republican and Democrat ‘politics’ in the USA. This has been quite deliberate and was crafted by Blair and Brown, together with other New Labour leaders over the last decade or so.

Incredibly, those currently looking for Brown’s head agreed that the boat should not be rocked during conference. News of Ruth Kelly’s coming resignation as transport minister was, to begin with, widely seen as breaking this unofficial agreement. However, it is quite possible that she really does want to “spend more time with my family”.

Anyway - and this is the real point - the gulf separating what the Labour tops say in public and what they say in private has never been greater. In private there is war between them. On the conference platform they all heap praise on the ‘great leader’.

Surely conference is exactly the right place to have these matters out and honestly decide whether or not to drop or keep him. That would be the procedure in any normal democratic organisation (from a chess club to a darts team). But no, not in the Labour Party. Like the Tories ‘those who matter’ believe in palace coups, plotting in the bars, lavatories and tea rooms of parliament and dark deals done in the ministerial corridors of power. That and spin, of course.

Hence conferences are not for the membership, not for real debate, not for real votes. They are a show for the media. Not least the Murdoch empire. In other words, a real turn-off. Such ‘politics’ shut out delegates, shut out ordinary members and are by definition thoroughly undemocratic and elitist. No wonder the Labour Party has lost something like half its membership since 1997 and constituency and ward organisations are nothing but empty shells.

In the lead-up to the Labour leader changeover last year, John McDonnell failed to get sufficient MPs to nominate him, even though he had significant support from a rolling grassroots campaign in which he vigorously engaged. Brown walked in unopposed as a result. Without receiving one vote, he became party leader and prime minister.

Of course, this is exactly what the Labour right want. Beginning with Neil Kinnock’s purge of the Militant Tendency in the 1980s, democracy in the Labour Party has been rolled back to the point where now it barely exists. As readers will doubtless recall, when Blair resigned, he and his cohort at the top, Brown included, had in place a system whereby only a minimum proportion of current MPs can even nominate a candidate for the party leadership - not groups of members, branches, CLPs or affiliated organisations, as might be expected in a democratically set up organisation.

Then, even when there is an election for leader, members of the party and political levy-paying members of affiliated trade unions find their votes devalued dramatically compared with the weight given to the votes of MPs in the electoral process.

The lack of democracy in the Labour Party, the virtual absence of the left at the Manchester conference, the massive decline in membership, the rightwing politics carried out by Blair and now Brown - does all this mean that now is the time for those activists who remain to leave? Should the unions disaffiliate? No, not in our opinion. Certainly not in order to join those fragments of the left still dreaming of a Labour Party mark two or a halfway house like the Scottish Socialist Party or the old Socialist Alliance that blurs the distinction between revolution and reform.

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